Under my byline

Oh Boy

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 4 July 2009

Roald Dahl, Boy (illustration, Quentin Blake)OVERLEAF 36

Growing up, my favourite author was Roald Dahl. For a whole season his George’s Marvellous Medicine accompanied me into the toilet every day. I never tired of the story, in which young George is left alone at home with his nasty, selfish, suspicious and sharp-tongued grandmother. He’s been told to give her her medicine, a foul brown concoction which is supposed to make her better but never does — in George’s eyes, anyway. So he decides to make his own medicine. Into a giant saucepan go scoops and glugs of everything he can find at home and elsewhere on his family farm, from laundry detergents to pills for horses. Each item is lovingly named and described as only Dahl can. The medicine, when George’s grandma downs it, works wonders.

Perhaps this struck a chord with me because, as a bored bathroom reader, I often turned to reading the tiny text on shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes. This quickly progressed to mixing my own oily brews in the toilet bowl — purely for the joy of experimentation, you see.

Just now, re-reading Dahl’s autobiographical Boy: Tales of Childhood, 25 years since it was published and 22 years since it was given me (there’s an inscription on the title page from a friend and colleague of my parents who, in the way such things work, is now a dear colleague of mine), I realise that not for one moment during my Dahl-strewn childhood did it ever cross my mind to wonder what sort of a man wrote those crazy stories.

I read Boy many times, to be sure, but with the same reading attitude that his books for childen demanded — that is, anticipation of nicely gruesome entertainment and a readiness to apply the pure (but mad and consequence-free) logic of small children.

That’s because Boy resembles Dahl’s children’s books. Its protagonist is an ordinary and serious little boy, and the rest of the cast comprises mainly a range of adults amongst whom the most amusing are the least likeable. These bad ones (sadistic schoolmasters) don’t always get their comeuppance, but they are nevertheless condemned, individual and type. Their very forgettableness is their death sentence — until Dahl extracts them from safe obscurity to hold them up to his unforgiving satiric light.

But Boy doesn’t offer overt insights into Dahl the man. It’s as if Dahl, writing about his childhood, is writing for children. Thus, there are plenty of events — both domestic and ordinary, become novel in the writer’s hands partly because they are located in the distant 1920s — but little about state of mind, except simple things like homesickness, physical pain, boredom or amusement. Dahl happily recollects, for example, the four-day journey that took his large family from Wales to a Norwegian island every year for the summer holiday; along the way there are carefully framed glimpses of family life. It’s plain, as many have observed about the English upbringing, that children are expected to behave with the greatest correctness, but beyond that are free to be whatever sort of person they choose.

Once Dahl goes to boarding school the narrative is interspersed with little snippets from his letters home. Naturally this is inhibited stuff, because in junior classes in boarding school not even one’s letters are private (in my own boarding school, too, we had a weekly letter-writing period, and our neatly pencil-ruled, carefully handwritten inland letter forms were then checked, ostensibly for spelling and grammar, by our classteacher). Dahl’s mother saved 600 of his youthful letters — but there are also extracts from his homework, school reports, “stars” and “stripes” for behaviour, and so on. Who keeps so much paper from their past, yet writes so opaque an autobiography?

Even Going Solo, the second part of his story, in which Dahl describes his adventurous post-school years in Africa and in World War II, is oblique on Dahl the man.

Perhaps it’s just that children are naturally unreflective; perhaps it is the way Dahl was raised; perhaps it was the times; perhaps he was a private man (that he was also a difficult one later biographers have learnt). For once the jacket blurb has it exactly right: on my 1986 edition, the New York Times Book Review says Boy is “As frightening and funny as fiction”.

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2 Responses

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  1. namrata said, on 26 July 2009 at 11:33 am

    nice!

    if youa re ever in london, check out this: http://www.roalddahlmuseum.org

    was a total hit with our 7 yr old.

  2. Rrishi said, on 30 July 2009 at 10:48 pm

    I’ll do that, if I can — thanks for the heads-up. They have a Café Twit!


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